Review: Bremont Wright Flyer
What should have been a momentous day for Bremont, the launch of both a watch with an actual piece of the Wright brothers’ Wright Flyer and the brand’s first in-house movement, turned sour after it was revealed that the calibre BWC/01 was not, after all, in-house. This is the story of how the Wright Flyer became the most controversial watch ever, and what that means not just for Bremont, but for the industry as well.
You’ve probably heard the story by now. It all started when the brothers English were forced to land their struggling 1930s biplane in—spoiler alert—French farmer Antoine Bremont’s field. And so, somewhere between then and now, those two brothers decided they wanted to start a British watch company stationed in Henley-on-Thames, which they chose to name after said Frenchman by way of gratitude, I suppose.
Whether you buy into this story or not, it should be acknowledged that the creation of Bremont watches was no pub talk pipedream—it actually happened. Nick and Giles English actually put the work in and created something new and different. And that’s no easy task; faced with the challenges of building a brand in a space where competitors are many centuries more senior, all the while offering something that’s not too familiar but not too different—that’s a hell of an undertaking.
And you’d have to say that, by and large, Bremont has been successful. The brand has carved a niche as the watch of the gentleman pilot, scored deals with aviators who skim the edge of Earth’s atmosphere, collaborated with the modern trailblazers of flight. It’s hard to believe that in less than two decades, Bremont has become as familiar a name as it has. Anyone who’s ever tried to get anyone to pay attention to anything will understand that this is no simple task.
And it’s not like the early 2000s was an easy time to become a watchmaker either. Bremont came to the world at the tail of acceptability of the bought-in movement, when it became clear that the public, rightly or wrongly, wanted in-house movements instead of the ETAs found in just about everything. Thing is, developing a movement, even a simple one, is anything but cheap. Industry figures put a cool £1 million figure on getting to a final prototype, and for an independent brand like Bremont, that’s no easy spend.
But there was another way. Behind the scenes operate a handful of companies that don’t sell products to the likes of you and me, but instead supply the industry with parts like hands, dials, cases—and even whole movements. Even companies whose output is predominantly in-house will seek specialist components like balance springs or sapphire crystals from outlets like this.
One of these outlets is a company called La Joux-Perret, most well-known—although still fairly unknown to the wider world—for furnishing Arnold & Son with its impressive calibres. What better company to have build you a movement? But here’s where the waters begin to get muddied: if La Joux-Perret had scratch-built a movement for Bremont, it may well have been fine. Many manufacturers use the term in-house to mean “made by a movement company but used exclusively”, and whilst that’s still a grey area, it’s fairly uncontroversial.
But that’s not what happened. Be it Bremont’s decision or La Joux-Perret’s, the movement Bremont ended up with was already being used by Arnold & Son as the A&S6003, and so when the watch community at large discovered that Bremont had called it in-house—well, there was hell to pay.
This isn’t the first time—and it certainly won’t be the last—that watch companies toy with the meaning of ‘in-house’. There are already strict regulations surrounding terms like ‘Swiss made’ which dictate the percentages of components that should be made locally, and the same ethos is loosely applied to labelling work as in-house. And, because of specialist components like the balance springs we mentioned earlier, only the very biggest manufacturers are capable of making everything truly in-house.
Where the lines get blurred is when you talk about corporate groups; Arnold & Son, for example, is owned by Citizen, and is La Joux-Perret, and so that technically makes a La Joux-Perret movement in an Arnold & Son watch in-house. This is a very common practice and one that your average watch buyer has little problem with; case in point, the entry-level Vacheron Constantin FiftySix, with a movement openly made by group manufacturer Horlogère ValFleurier, that’s finished, assembled and regulated in-house by Vacheron Constantin. But what Bremont did here is to, as an independent watchmaker, rebadge another movement and claim it entirely as its own.
TAG Heuer enacted a similar trick a few years ago with the calibre 1887, sourcing plans for a Seiko chronograph, the TC78. Whilst the calibre 1887 was indeed constructed and assembled in-house, the movement was very much of Japanese origin, and so much hurried clarification about how the design had been substantially changed at a cost of tens of millions of pounds was made, and everyone involved was deeply sorry about the whole misunderstanding.
But whilst Bremont claimed that many of the calibre BWC/01’s constituent parts had been constructed at the company’s Henley-on-Thames base, and also whilst some of the bridges had been reshaped and the dial side simplified from the La Joux-Perret original, it’s clear that the movement had no grounds being called in-house. This was eventually clarified by Bremont itself, but not after going through a few rounds on the internet first.
The problem is that all this controversy overshadowed the actual watch. Bremont may not be loved by everyone, but it has established a reputation for making high-quality watches with a unique flavour, and the Wright Flyer is no different. The original RRP of a hair under £18,000 may be a bit eye-watering, but let’s not forget that the movement still comes from Arnold & Son, one of the most impressive watchmakers around. Maybe that would have been a better PR spin, a British watch with a movement from a heralded British watchmaker—that’s made by a Swiss company, that’s owned by the Japanese. Maybe best not peel back too many layers.
And of course we’re forgetting the crowning jewel of this watch—no, not the crown itself, although it does line up rather pleasingly when it’s screwed down, other brands take note—which is the fragment of original muslin used in the Wright brothers’ Wright Flyer, a machine that became the first successful heavier-than-air vehicle over a century ago. That flight was such a historic moment that Neil Armstrong took fragments of the Wright Flyer to the moon and back in honour of the achievement. Maybe that’s not exciting to you, but if it is, you’ve got to admit that the prospect of owning a piece of that actual plane does make the inner nerd tingle just a little bit.
It’s an interesting one. Imagine if the clocks could be turned back and Bremont were able to take a second stab at releasing this watch; I’m sure it would have had its detractors, but ultimately it’s a handsome—and handsomely priced—piece that offers a literal slice of aviation history with a movement many watchmakers would be proud to have performing ticking duty. I mean, considering those fragments Armstrong took with him to the moon realised over half a million pounds at auction, perhaps the watch is actually a bit of a bargain…
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